Jewish Journal


May 10, 2013

On wearing grandpa’s tefillin at the Wall


Praying at the Western Wall wearing my grandfather's tefillin (yes, I know, my head Tefillin is askew).

Praying at the Western Wall wearing my grandfather's tefillin (yes, I know, my head Tefillin is askew).

It’s just before 7 a.m. when I arrive at Kotel Plaza security station to find long lines.  My son Andy gets into the swiftly moving line for men.  I enter the longer, slowly moving line for women.   Andy carries the cloth bag containing our things.   I try reaching to remove mine, but Andy stops me.

“No, Mom”, he says, “I’ll carry these through.  They won’t confiscate yours that way”.  

After clearing security, we hurry across the plaza towards the Western Wall.  Police officers patrol the area.  Television news cameras are set up behind the Plaza divider.  Women reporters carrying smaller cameras prowl throughout the women’s section.  When Women of the Wall meets, it’s newsworthy in Jerusalem.

It is Rosh Hodesh Iyar 5773, April 11, 2013. I am visiting from Los Angeles to see my son, daughter-in-law, and 4 -month-old grandson, there for six months.   As I have done on two previous trips, I join Women of the Wall for the Rosh Hodesh service, which is just starting.  Andy hands me my tallit and tefillin at the top of the entrance ramp to the Women’s section.

"Good luck, Mom” he says. “Go for it.”

[Related: Haredi Orthodox youth mob Western Wall in protest of women’s prayer service]

I decide at that moment that I will be the second woman there to wrap tefillin this morning. Wearing tefillin increases my risk of arrest. Joining the women collecting near the back of the women’s section, I walk past a young woman placing tefillin on her head.   My go-ahead sign.  I pin my kippah on my head and kiss my tallit, draping it around my shoulders.   I take the tefillin out of the velvet bag and untangle the straps.  I cinch the arm box onto the inner surface of my upper arm, securing the box with two loops above the elbow. Then I wrap the traditional seven loops down my forearm and pause to place the other box on my head, then complete wrapping the straps around my hand.

“Ramemu Ha Shem Eloheinu” I hear around me.  I sing along.  The crowd of women continues to grow.  

The tefillin I wrap belonged to my Grandpa, Solomon Rubin, who was not a religious man.  No one I know ever saw him use the tefillin.  His family did not know he even owned them until after he had died and my Grandmother gave them to my parents.  My mother stored the tefillin in a cabinet for many years, then gave them to me.  About twenty years, later, when I joined a Tuesday morning egalitarian minyan I started using them.  Why did Grandpa keep these religious objects that he never used through all the different migrations of his life?  Today I may get an inkling.

Grandpa left his birth home in Galicia, Southern Poland, as a teenager and entered the United States in 1920 or 1921. His initial job in the USA, sewing in a sweatshop, activated a passion for social justice that quickly moved him into organizing garment workers.  He then worked organizing unions in several industries, including the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, where my father was born.

When the family moved from Mt. Pleasant to Philadelphia, Grandpa found work there organizing union locals in the leather industry. Eventually, having been blacklisted repeatedly, he left union organizing. He opened a small business and had varying and ultimately limited success.  The values that Grandpa demonstrated for all his descendants were the same ones that guided him into organizing to begin with: the belief that individuals and their lives have value, that justice must be accessible and equitable, and that people should be fairly compensated for their work. I was raised with commitment to these values as one model of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. 

When I started to wear Grandpa’s tefillin my elder son Andy, was just past bar mitzvah age. He taught me how to wrap them, and what blessings to say when I put them on.  After I had been wearing them weekly for a few years, the original leather —then over 90 years old—cracked and the arm strap became too short to wrap properly.  So my husband Norm took the tefillin to a sofer, who replaced the straps with fresh leather.  This inspection also confirmed the age and origin of the tefillin, as the Sofer told Norm that tefillin as small as these were characteristic of Galicia (Southern Poland) in the early 1900s.  No American made tefillin had such tiny boxes. 

I always feel connected to Grandpa when I wear the tefillin. Since he was an advocate for equality and social justice, I always imagine him being very pleased that it is a granddaughter, and not a grandson, who wears them.  Social justice and equity on a small scale, perhaps, but using those particular tefillin in a struggle for equal access is exactly how I imagine he would want them used.  I think of that every time I put them on, no matter where I am.

As I pray, I look over the heads of the growing crowd of women at the ancient stones of the Western Wall.  I have a moment of insight and certainty, that it was for this precise moment, and this particular experience, that these tefillin I am wearing have been entrusted to me.  The tefillin have traveled from Southern Poland west across Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America. They were stored in drawers and closets for decades, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and California.  And now they are worn, as originally intended, during prayer; and this time, in this most ancient and special place.

Five women, three wearing tefillin, were arrested that morning.  I was not among them. The charges against them were later dropped by the Judge hearing the case.

Wrapping and wearing tefillin makes tangible the ethereal idea of expressing love for God as a sign on our hand and a symbol in front of our eyes.  Grandpa lived his adult life with little religious ritual.  His pursuit of justice, equity, and access was the sign on his hand and the symbol in front of his eyes.

Women of the Wall fights for these same values within the context of Jewish religious expression.  Moments of synthesis are perfect; rare and fleeting, illuminating connections with startling clarity.  I feel Grandpa with me in this moment, wearing our shared values as the signs on our arms and the symbols in front of our eyes, those values made physical by the small leather boxes I wear.  In praying with Women of the Wall, I honor his memory and the tefillin he had, unwittingly, bequeathed to me. 

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